“You’ll achieve the level of safety performance that you demonstrate you want” is a time-honoured and maybe over-used phrase but nevertheless it’s deadly accurate. If anyone in a leadership role is really interested in safety improvement then they have to show it. People need to feel the commitment of their leaders. The question is how can people tell what their leaders want? What do they look for?

1. What leaders talk about (and how)

If my leader talks about output all the time, guess what I’ll try to give him? So the safety excellent leader has to talk about safety. But is this enough? Well no; because it’s how my leader talks about safety that’s important. How enthusiastic is this person? I’m reluctant to use the word passionate as it’s been completely devalued by ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair who was so passionate about so many things. Middle East peace envoy… you couldn’t make it up could you? He was very passionate about war in Iraq at one point too. However, the safety excellent manager must talk with passion about safety because if they aren’t then people will tell from their body language.

2. Conviction and standards

Safety is great when it’s convenient. The real test of commitment to safey from a leader is how they react when there’s a production vs safety decision or a finance vs safety decision or an anything vs safety decision.

“The night has a thousand eyes,
And a thousand eyes can’t help but see…”

When the chips are down everyone will watch how their leader reacts and if they jump the wrong way then the story of this lack of commitment will pass into organisational legend and be told and retold from father to son.

3. Their behaviour

Does my leader practice what they preach? The most obvious manifestation of this is the fireproof manager who doesn’t wear their PPE; followed closely by the manager who drives like a maniac and sadly the manager whose DIY exploits involve no safety considerations at all. Home behaviour is the best indicator of what’s really valued; the leader who’s safe at work but not at home frankly doesn’t get it. As a minimum their safe behaviour at work has to be immaculate. Leaders simply have to walk the talk as our trans-Atlantic cousins would have it.

Father with his hands on the heads of his sons against a sunset with gold clubs and golf bags

How does my leader react to someone challenging his behaviour? This is really important, if people only feel that they can challenge the behaviour of their peers or subordinates then the organisation can hardly be described as a learning one.

4. Where they spend their time

People who are interested in golf spend their time on the golf course, safety is no different. Good leaders in safety will turn up for safety meetings instead of sending a deputy. They’ll exceed their monthly safety conversation target. They’ll take a personal interest in accident and incident investigation and closure of actions arising and so on.

In summary

People can tell what we really want by:

  • What we talk about and how passionate we are
  • The amount of commitment we demonstrate
  • The standards we maintain
  • How we behave ourselves
  • Where we spend our time